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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

Educator Effectiveness

July 2020


What research is available on key factors associated with the improvement of low-performing schools after receiving state support?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies and policy overviews on key factors associated with the improvement of low-performing schools after receiving state support. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Center for School Turnaround and Improvement at WestEd. (2016). Recruit, select, and support: Turnaround leader competencies. San Francisco, CA: Author. Retrieved from

From the description: “Leading school turnaround is complex work, but research shows that there are specific competencies that school leaders need for successful turnaround efforts. This professional learning module can help regional comprehensive centers and state education agency staff learn how to use these competencies to recruit, select, and provide ongoing support to school principals working in a turnaround context.”

Council of the Great City Schools. (2015). School Improvement Grants: Progress report from America’s Great City Schools. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This report measures trends in performance among urban schools receiving federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) awards as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). The Council of the Great City Schools aims to document how member districts of the Council of the Great City Schools implemented SIG and specifically what effects the program had on student test scores and school ‘holding power’—the ability of high schools to move students through the system on a timely basis. Finally, based on interviews with district and school-based staff in several case study districts, common characteristics of successful and unsuccessful implementation of the SIG program in Council schools and districts are identified and described. Results of the analysis across states for grades three through eight in both math and reading indicate that the gaps in the percentages of students scoring at or above Proficient on state assessments between SIG-award schools and the two comparison groups (SIG-eligible schools that did not receive grants and non-SIG-eligible schools) appear to have narrowed steadily over the first two years of the grants, and then leveled off in the third year. The findings suggest that SIG-award schools also reduced the percentage of students in the lowest proficiency levels on state assessments. In many respects, this measure could be considered the most relevant assessment of the impact of the SIG investment, as more than one out of every three students in SIG-award schools were classified in the lowest performance level on state assessments.”

Cucchiara, M. B., Rooney, E., & Robertson-Kraft, C. (2015). “I’ve never seen people work so hard!” Teachers’ working conditions in the early stages of school turnaround. Urban Education, 50(3), 259–287. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “School turnaround—a reform strategy that strives for quick and dramatic transformation of low-performing schools—has gained prominence in recent years. This study uses interviews and focus groups conducted with 86 teachers in 13 schools during the early stages of school turnaround in a large urban district to examine teachers’ perceptions of the social and organizational conditions within their schools. The study shows that some turnaround schools provided more positive working conditions than others, particularly with respect to organizational function and culture. It further finds a strong association between teachers’ perceptions of school-level working conditions and support for school turnaround.”

Donley, J. (2019). Effective practices: Research briefs and evidence rating. Philadelphia, PA: Center on Innovations in Learning, Temple University. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Center on Innovations in Learning (CIL) is a national content center established to work with regional comprehensive centers and state education agencies (SEA) to build SEAs’ capacity to stimulate, select, implement, and scale up innovation in learning. This report is a collection of evidence ratings and practice briefs. The categories for both the Evidence Base and Effect Size Rating for Effective Practices and the Effective Practice Briefs are: (1) School Leadership and Decision-Making; (2) Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction Planning; (3) Classroom Instruction; (4) Personalized Learning: Digital Learning; (5) Personalized Learning: Blended Learning; (6) Personalized Learning: Cognitive Competency; (7) Personalized Learning: Metacognitive Competency; (8) Personalized Learning: Motivational Competency; (9) Personalized Learning: Social/Emotional Competency; (10) Family Engagement in a School Community; (11) Preschool Early Learning; (12) High School: Leadership and Decision-Making; (13) High School: Opportunity to Learn; and (14) District Support for School Success.”

Henry, G. T., Pham, L. D., Kho, A., & Zimmer, R. (2020). Peeking into the black box of school turnaround: A formal test of mediators and suppressors. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(2), 232–256. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “A growing body of research evaluates the effects of turnaround on chronically low-performing schools. We extend this literature by formally testing factors that may either mediate or suppress the effects of two turnaround initiatives in Tennessee: the Achievement School District (ASD) and local Innovation Zones (iZones). Using difference-in-differences models within a mediational framework, we find that hiring effective teachers and principals partially explains positive iZone effects. In the ASD, high levels of teacher turnover suppress potential positive effects. Also, in iZone schools, increased levels of student mobility and chronic absenteeism suppress potentially larger positive effects. Policies that increase capacity within turnaround schools, such as financial incentives for effective staff, appear to be important ingredients for realizing positive effects from turnaround reforms.”

Hines, E. M., Moore, J. L., III, Mayes, R. D., Harris, P. C., Vega, D., Robinson, D. V., et al. (2020). Making student achievement a priority: The role of school counselors in turnaround schools. Urban Education, 55(2), 216–237. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Much attention has been paid to administrators and teachers in turnaround schools; however, little focus, if any, is given to school counselors and the vital role that they play in improving student outcomes. In turnaround schools, it is critical that all school personnel are involved in improving school outcomes, such as academic achievement and graduation rates, in the lowest performing high schools in the United States. The authors highlight the critical role that school counselors play in turnaround schools and offer specific recommendations on how they may collaborate with other stakeholders to improve student achievement in such school settings.”

Hitt, D. H., Robinson, W., & Player, D. (2018). District readiness to support school turnaround: A guide for state education agencies and districts (The Center on School Turnaround Four Domains Series). Sacramento, CA: Center on School Turnaround at WestEd. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This document provides state education agencies (SEAs) and districts with guidance about how to assess a district’s readiness to support school turnaround initiatives. First published in 2013, the guide has been updated in this edition to highlight how its approach to assessing district readiness embeds and reflects key components of ‘Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement,’ a framework developed by the Center on School Turnaround (CST, 2017). Using this framework, the guide aims to help policymakers or practitioners consider school turnaround as a ‘system-level’ issue — fundamental district-level practices must be in place to establish the conditions for school turnaround to succeed. This perspective counters the tendency for school turnaround efforts to focus on only the ‘school’s’ structure and leadership. By contrast, this guide provides an introduction to district-level turnaround readiness and the conditions that will help districts best position resources to enable turnaround schools to succeed and to sustain that success. SEA leaders can also use the guide to reflect on where and how to support districts in ways that have been shown to matter by the experience of practitioners entrenched in supporting turnaround as well as by research in the field of rapid improvement. The Every Student Succeeds Act gives SEAs more discretion in where to invest precious resources, and a readiness-assessment process aligned with what matters can help SEAs determine what commitments may be needed from a district if that district is to receive a major investment of resources from the SEA. A vignette is included to illustrate how such district-led turnaround might unfold in practice and show what the district and SEA can do to create the conditions for school leaders to have the greatest chance for success.”

Huber, D. J., & Conway, J. M. (2015). The effect of school improvement planning on student achievement. Planning & Changing, 46(1-2), 56–70. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This study evaluated the hypothesis that schools in Connecticut’s Alliance Districts (lowest-performing districts) with higher-quality school improvement plans (SIPs) would have higher levels of student achievement. An exploratory research question evaluated whether SIPs predicted achievement of particular subgroups. SIPs were obtained and scored for 108 schools. Consistent with the hypothesis, SIP total scores correlated positively with student school-level student achievement. However, in multiple regression analysis controlling for demographic factors and prior school-level student achievement, SIP total score’s coefficient did not reach the 0.05 level of significance. None of the subgroups with reasonably large N’s (Hispanic, students eligible for free or reduced price lunch, and ‘high needs’ students) had significant regression coefficients even though all three subgroups had small, yet significant correlations with SIP total score. We recommend that schools develop high-quality SIPs that focus efforts directly on subgroup performance to close current gaps in achievement.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Le Floch, K., Garcia, A. N., & Barbour, C. (2016). Want to improve low-performing schools? Focus on the adults. Washington, DC: Education Policy Center at American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Issue: School improvement policy for the past few decades has been characterized by mandated lists of activities—both well intended and research based—designed to stimulate a dramatic turnaround in student achievement. However, this prescriptive approach to policy, particularly federal policy, has not resulted in the systemic changes needed to get the right teachers and leaders into low-performing schools to support school improvement. In the long run, this policy approach did not engender the school-level changes necessary to create learning organizations that support teachers and leaders. The Research: One key lesson from the past decades of school improvement research is that an explicit focus on improving the capacity and stability of teachers and leaders in low-performing schools would benefit these schools more than another mandated checklist of improvement activities. Schools can never be any stronger or more effective than the adults who work in them—doubly true for chronically low-performing schools. The Recommendations: With the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), state policymakers must prepare for states’ increased role in making low-performing schools better. We suggest that policymakers step back from requirements to implement specific improvement activities (similar to those required by the federal School Improvement Grants [SIG] program) and instead focus policy on the development and support of human capital. New policies must aim to get the right people in our schools and to create district and state systems that retain those people and build their knowledge and skills to turn schools around.”

Le Floch, K. C., O’Day, J., Birman, B., Hurlburt, S., Nayfack, M., Halloran, C., et al. (2016). Case studies of schools receiving School Improvement Grants (Final Report. NCEE 2016-4002). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Study of School Turnaround (SST) examines the change process in a diverse, purposive sample of schools receiving federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) from 2010-11 to 2012-13…This report focuses on a small sample of schools receiving SIG over the first three years of the revamped SIG program, from 2010-11 to 2012-13. It presents findings from the study’s 25 core sample schools, which were the focus of data collection in spring 2011 and spring 2012, and a subsample of 12 of the 25 schools (collectively referred to as the core subsample), which were selected for data collection in spring 2013 and are the focus of more in-depth analyses looking across all three years of SIG. The findings include: (1) A majority of the 25 core sample schools replaced their principal (21 schools) at least once in the year before SIG (2009-10) or in Year 1 of SIG (2010-11); (2) About half of the 25 core sample schools (12 schools, including 9 turnaround, 2 restart, and 1 transformation) replaced at least 50 percent of their teachers during the 2009-10, 2010-11, or 2011-12 school years; (3) According to teacher survey data, more teachers reported participating in professional learning on math, literacy, and data use than on ELL instruction, special education, or classroom management during Year 2 of SIG (2011-12); (4) Core sample schools reported receiving support from their district (22 of 22 schools) and external support provider(s) (22 of 25 schools), but in some cases, respondents described shortcomings in their district or external support; (5) Among the 12 core subsample schools, those that appeared to engage in more efforts to build human capital in Years 1 and 2 of SIG (7 schools) were more likely to improve their organizational capacity (or sustain their already higher capacity); and (6) Sustainability of any improvements may prove fragile.”

Lutterloh, C., Cornier, J. P., & Hassel, B. C. (2016). Measuring school turnaround success. San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from

From the description: “Successful school turnarounds—characterized by quick, strategic changes in school culture and systems that result in dramatic improvement in student achievement in persistently low-performing schools—are hard work and difficult to achieve and sustain. This report sets out an approach to measure turnaround success that states, districts, and schools can adopt in their own contexts.”

McCauley, C., & Cashman, J. (2018). The engagement playbook: A toolkit for engaging stakeholders around the four domains of rapid school improvement (The Center on School Turnaround Four Domains Series). Sacramento, CA: Center on School Turnaround at WestEd. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “As researchers, decision-makers, and practitioners focus on continuous improvement in education, local-level change is gaining importance. Yet, many local school improvement efforts fail to be fully implemented. Even those that are fully implemented often fail to sustain improvements because the schools are embedded in systems that face multiple challenges. Can decision-makers and everyone who is responsible for implementing school improvement efforts come together to build a better, more sustainable approach to local improvement? This toolkit attempts to support such coming together by combining a powerful framework for school turnaround with a focus on the human side of change. The toolkit is built on the intersections between ‘Leading by Convening’ (ED584148), a blueprint for authentic engagement in school improvement developed by 50 national organizations and adopted by the National Center for Systemic Improvement, and the ‘Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement’ (ED584107), a framework developed by the national Center on School Turnaround. In this document, the authors explore the touch points between the ‘Four Domains for Rapid School Improvement’ and ‘Leading by Convening.’ The toolkit is organized by the domain areas listed in the ‘Four Domains’ framework. This toolkit emphasizes alignment across the system by focusing first on school-level change, and then back-mapping district and state efforts to create coherent approaches and permit learning across sites and levels. Included in each domain section are pointers to tools from ‘Leading by Convening,’ the ‘Four Domains,’ and other resources that may be used to build capacity and engage stakeholders, as well as reflection questions drawn from the ‘Four Domains’ framework.”

Player, D., & Katz, V. (2016). Assessing school turnaround: Evidence from Ohio. The Elementary School Journal, 116(4), 675–698. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Policy makers have struggled to find successful approaches to address concentrated, persistent low school achievement. While NCLB and the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program have devoted significant time and attention to turnaround, very little empirical evidence substantiates whether and how these efforts work. This study employs a comparative interrupted time series (CITS) to examine a sample of 20 Ohio schools that participated in a school turnaround program and finds participating schools experienced meaningful improvements in student achievement after completing the 2-year program, which persisted and grew in the 2 years subsequent to the completion of the program. Improved student achievement is not wholly concentrated within specific performance categories, suggesting that participation in the program is associated with increases in overall student performance rather than focusing only on students at the margin of proficiency. These results provide some of the first causal evidence of the potential efficacy of focused school improvement efforts.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Reedy, K., & Lacireno-Paquet, N. (2015). Implementation and outcomes of Kansas Multi-Tier System of Supports: Final evaluation report-2014. San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Implementation of multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) has grown rapidly in Kansas and is a key strategy for turning around low-performing schools in the state. MTSS is designed to improve outcomes for all students by instituting system-level change across the classroom, school, district, and state. Such systemic change is accomplished by developing a coherent continuum of evidence-based, systemwide practices to support a rapid response to each student’s academic and behavioral needs. MTSS features frequent data-based monitoring for instructional decision making. MTSS core components include evidence-based curricula, high-quality instruction, a comprehensive assessment system, data-based decision making, effective intervention, fidelity of implementation, ongoing professional development, and leadership within an empowering school and district culture. This final summative evaluation report: (1) Describes the current status of MTSS implementation in Kansas; (2) Provides insights as to what it takes to implement MTSS with fidelity; and (3) Offers recommendations for next steps.”

Turnbull, B. J., & Arcaira, E. R. (2012). Implementation of turnaround strategies in chronically low-performing schools. Paper presented at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness Conference, Washington, DC. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “There is some evidence to indicate that chronically low-performing schools, whether improving student performance or not, often report pursuing substantially similar policies, programs, and practices. However, while chronically low-performing schools may pursue similar school improvement strategies, there is some evidence that the level and quality of implementation, as well as the coherence, alignment, and persistence of implementation, may lead to different prospects for school turnaround. This study investigated how school improvement efforts were implemented in turnaround (TA) and non-improving (NI) schools, with a focus on the external and internal conditions that were perceived to support these efforts. Findings showed that differences between the TA and NI case study schools were apparent, although the study’s necessary reliance on individuals’ memories and on a small convenience sample dictate caution in interpreting these findings. With respect to central improvement efforts, respondents in TA schools compared with those in NI schools more frequently cited data use (chiefly for pinpointing individual students’ progress and needs), targeted student supports (during or beyond the school day), and the use of common planning time for collaboration. Conversely, more NI case study schools identified adopting new curricula or instructional approaches as central to their work during the study period.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Center for School Turnaround & Improvement –

From the website: “The Center for School Turnaround and Improvement (CSTI) at WestEd is a nationally recognized leader in the research and development of solutions that support systemic improvement for all schools. We work with you at all levels—from SEAs to districts to individual schools—to identify and help sustain evidence-based, promising practices that ensure equity and drive systemwide change for rapid improvement.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Educational improvement” “state departments of education”

  • “Low achievement” “school improvement”

  • School turnaround

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.